BERGER: Chablis may be at its best
Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.
A friend and winemaker once convinced me that certain kinds of wines taste better with certain kinds of music, and that the wrong pairing makes for discord.
That thought crossed my mind last week when I attended a small dinner for lovers of Chablis. I refer to that utterly sublime white wine from the French district called Chablis, and thus the word should be capitalized.
Yet I saw a California chardonnay last week with that term on its front label, a sort of slap in the face to real Chablis, which is one of the world's least understood fine wines, an all-chardonnay wine that's most unlike the California-ized version.
It is a wine that deserves a lot better fate than it has gotten, being used on cheap, tawdry wines, not where it rightfully belongs, with haute couture.
Chablis, in its finest incarnation, is a wine for introspection, for large glasses and dim lights, to elevate delicate foods to heights they would never reach on their own, for quiet voices and subtle flavors.
To use a musical analogy, most California chardonnays have the vigor of a John Philip Sousa march; Chablis calls for Debussy and Satie. During dinner the other night, I thought of another way to look at it: most California chardonnay is Jackson Pollock; Chablis is Monet.
During the meal with winemaker Jean-Francois Bordet, the current president of the Chablis Wine Board, we tasted six Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines that were variations on the same theme -- almost no oak aging.
To sum up my impressions, Chablis may never have been better across the board than it is now. It may have been more exciting in decades past when the Grand Cru vineyards would deliver some phenomenal wines in the great vintages.
But as for consistency, Bordet said it best: "Just 30 years ago it was very difficult to control the temperature (of the fermentation) so the wines were different from year to year."
More modern equipment now populates the wine-making areas of many high-caliber Chablis wineries, so even in poor years, good wines can be made. Also, said Bordet, the better vineyards now have better plants, better growing systems and winemaking that exceeds even the best of those back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also, in the 1980s, there was a wave of interest in aging some of these wines in oak barrels. This decade of "oaky Chablis" saddened purists and robbed the wines of some of their exciting minerality, replacing that trait with a sort of lugubriousness that simply did not represent Chablis.
Bordet admitted that the oaky period was sort of squirrelly for the district of Chablis, which began to lose many of its supporters who wanted the lean, delicate, crisp, tart Chablis of old.
From what I tasted the other day, five vintages of Chablis from 2008 and 2009 and one from 2010, real Chablis is back and in fine form. No, this wine is not for everyone. Some people like John Philip Souza and do not like Debussy.
Wine of the Week: 2010 Iron Horse Chardonnay UnOaked, Green Valley of Sonoma County ($28) -- One of the few California chardonnays that emulates Chablis a bit. The wine has remarkable purity (just as do the greatest Chablis) and sufficient acidity to pair with the same sort of delicate foods that Chablis loves as well.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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